World Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Good morning class. My name’s C.A. Sanders. I’m a writer and writing teacher and have been doing both for a very long time. I don’t ask that you take what I say to heart, but it you keep reading, you might learn something.

Today, I want to talk about World Building, specifically in genre fiction (though it’s important in all fiction). At the bottom of the article, I added a nice little worksheet to help you with your world.

What Is World Building, and Why Would You Waste an Article on It?

When I teach creative writing, I describe the story as a building, and break the elements down to three load-bearing beams: Plot Building, Character Building, and World Building (Yes, it’s an oddly shaped building). For a story to be successful, it must have all three. They support each other. If one of them feels less than authentic, the story will collapse and you’ll have nowhere to sleep.

What I’ve discovered over my years of teaching is that students understand plot and character, but the “world of the story” eludes them.

In genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, historical, horror, etc.) world building is even more important. You’re taking the reader outside of what he knows, into a world where the rules may be completely different. He’s a stranger in a strange land, and you’re his only guide. That said, you better draw him a good map.

If You Build It…

When I start a story (this goes double for a novel) I take copious notes about the world I’m creating. If it’s sci fi or fantasy, I define the technology and/or magic systems. What about religion? Geography? History? Most of these things will never come into play, but they will color how you envision and write your story.

For example: In my novel Song of Simon, I started with a map, a random design of what could be a continent in a foreign land. Based on the squiggles, I drew where rivers might be, then cities. A mountain would be here, at the beginning of this river, and other rivers might flow over it. This river separates these two cities, are they rivals? Friends? Before I knew it, I had an entire continent with a rich history, incredibly detailed religious/magic system, and unique customs, down to the games they like to play. It all grew out of some random shapes on a piece of loose leaf.

In The Watchmage of Old New York, I designed each race of Dwellers (magical beings trapped on our side of “The Veil”) before I began writing. I did this first is because what I create in the beginning will color every aspect of the story later. Too often writers jump off the cliff–pen in hand–without planning ahead. Those writers 1) either write something awful, or 2) find themselves constantly revising and/or leaving massive plot holes.

Of course, these notes are a tool, not handcuffs. If you find a better idea halfway through, go and change your notes. Just make sure that you stay consistent. Remember, you’re creating a map for your readers, and if Main Street suddenly becomes Elm Street, people are going to be lost. Ever have someone yell at you for giving bad directions? Imagine that in book form.

Design the Weirdest Things First

This is your “what if” moment, the key to all fiction. “What if a young orphan is secretly a wizard and goes to this school for wizards?” “What if there’s a world where seasons last for years, and the thought hanging over their heads is that winter is coming?” “What if a boy is a key to destroying a bug-like enemy?” “What if evil Gods slumber in the debts, and the search for them inevitably causes madness?” This is the seed that your world will grow from.

Remember that you’re describing a world that the reader won’t relate to without your help. The first thing that you should do is flesh out the things that are unlike our lives. Do they live on Mars? What does the sky looks like. Do they live under a dome? Have they evolved to breathe Martian air? How has their language changed from ours?

If you’re writing a fantasy, show us how do they live. Is society controlled by wizards? Is it more of a wasteland? Do Gods play beer pong in the field behind the hero’s house? Do werewolves go to market to buy bacon? These are things that will help you the most when you write your story.

Remember that what you set up here you’ll have to enforce through the Reader-Writer contract. The short version is: the reader agrees to suspend disbelief, and the writer agrees to be straight forward with prose and true to the rules of his world. It’s more complex than that, and I’ll go into it in another article. Just don’t try to trick the reader. No one likes being tricked after making themselves so vulnerable.

Know What You Write

The old adage goes “write what you know.” If you went by this, there’d be no genre fiction at all. How can you write what you know if it never happened or happened a thousand years ago? Let’s change the phrase from “write what you know,” to “know what you write.” In other words, DO YOUR HOMEWORK (wow, how many times have I said THAT in my life!)

As you can tell by the title, The Watchmage of Old New York isn’t just fantasy, it’s a historical fantasy. Historicals need extra attention. I researched every aspect of life in 1855 New York City, from the gangs and hot corn girls of The Bowery, to the vast estates of Harlem. Ward elections and stock market results, I devoured them all. Most of it doesn’t appear in the serial or the subsequent novels, but that doesn’t mean it was wasted. When you write from actual history, you have to get things right, or at least a reasonable imitation. If you can’t create an aura of authenticity–if you can’t make people believe–your story isn’t going to work.

I’m not saying that you have to do as much research as I did. I realize that I went overboard, but that’s due to my love of history. But you do have to do enough to convince people that your world is real.

Devil in the Details?

What I’m about to say is going to go against everything I’ve said so far. Don’t go crazy with the details.

“What do you mean?” you ask. “Are you some crazy teacher that likes to torture aspiring writers?” “Do you even know what you’re saying?” These are all legitimate questions. I am delightfully mad.

A novice’s most common mistake is wordiness. They take twenty words where five will do. Their prose is a fatty, cholesterol-filled, heart clogger. It’s a terrible habit and has to stop.

The problem isn’t the details, it’s the terrible way that the writer delivers those details. Passive voice. Adverbs (shudders). Too much exposition. They are all petty crimes that lead to bad prose.

Think of details and action as muscle, and exposition and weak prose as fat. Cut away as much fat as you can. Change passive voice to active. Eliminate as many adverbs as possible (if you need to qualify a verb with an adverb, there’s a better verb out there). Separate exposition into smaller bites rather than huge chunks that’ll choke the reader and make him put the book down.

I like to incorporate action into my exposition. For example: instead of “There was a fat jailor whistling, and I walked past him,” I’d write “I walked past the fat, whistling jailor.” We still learned about the jailor, but the latter is more compact. Remember what Oscar said: brevity is the soul of wit (if you don’t know which Oscar I mean, you have far to go).

Joy of Writing

The best world building metaphor I can think of is this: Remember Bob Ross and his show Joy of Painting? First he would block out the basic shapes and shadows that he wanted. He outlined a whole landscape in just blacks and grays. But when he started adding highlights to those shadows, they blended together to form something new and beautiful. That’s the relationship between world building and the other pillars. The world of the story is the shadow, it’s what allows the rest to shine. Without it, you might as well be fingerpainting.

About the Author

C.A. Sanders is a veteran writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His novel Song of Simon was released in Sept. 2013 by Damnation Books and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc, and at your local bookstore.

His webserial The Watchmage of Old New York (FREE WITH REGISTRATION) , is currently the second most popular serial at JukePopSerials.com. His short fiction is available across the print and electronic worlds.

His Website: http://www.casanders.net

C.A. is a former entertainment journalist, and wrote for such sites as Examiner.com, Suite101.com, Relix Magazine, and Yahoo.com. He teaches and tutors in the suburbs of NYC, specializing in creative fiction and non-fiction.

World Building Worksheet

Setting: Write At Least Five Details About Your Setting That Don’t Appear in the Modern World.
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Technology/Magic: Write At Least Five Details About Tech/Magic In Your Story
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History: Write At Least Five Details About Your World’s History
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Society: Write At Least Five Details About Your Story’s Society And Customs
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Bonus: Write At Least Five Extra Details That You Think Might Be Important
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2 thoughts on “World Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Better Writing Through D&D | casandersdotnet

  2. Pingback: The Ten (Fifteen) Book Challenge | casandersdotnet

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